Please come back Dre Hollins. You're Minnesota's only hope.
The Gophers lost to Northwestern 55-54, blowing an excellent chance to create some separation in the standings and bank another win on the road to the NCAA tournament. Ken Pomeroy predicted that the Gophers win this game 88% of the time. Now, the Gophers are back below .500 in conference play and have lost two very winnable games. The Four Factors are below. Minnesota and Northwestern split them, but the OR% is of limited value because Northwestern's style is to concede defensive rebounds in favor of getting at least four players back on defense.
What's missing from that table is free throws. Northwestern was 7-7 from the line and the Gophers were 5-9. That's the game.
In the first half, Minnesota's defense made a putrid offensive basketball team look respectable. How much more respectable? In conference play, Northwestern's adjusted ORtg is 84.8. It wasn't just hero shots either, though Tre Demps's 3 pointer as the shot clock expired in the final minute would qualify as one. For the first ten minutes, Minnesota's defense operated at half speed. They were late to shooters, meaning that the 317th 3 point shooting team in the country began the game 4-5 from behind the arc. Dre Mathieu and Elliott Eliason picked up cheap fouls that limited their effectiveness.
Following an excellent performance against Nebraska, Malik Smith had his worst game as a Gopher. He finished with 7 points, but was 3-11 from the field and just 1-9 from behind the arc. Most of his 3 point shots were rushed and not in rhythm. Part of the credit for that has to go to Northwestern's defense, which did a good job keeping him from coming free off screens. Smith also missed both of his FTs. Coming into the game he was an ~88% free throw shooter.
Mo Walker had another excellent offensive game finishing with 14 points, but scored all but two in the first half. The Gophers went away from feeding the post in the second half. Of course, without Walker's first half the Gophers lose this game by double digits. That fact confirms the idea that these are the kind of games where every possession should go through the post. Northwestern collapsed regularly, opening up baseline cuts and kick outs. Instead of consistently exploiting this advantage, the Gophers settled for jump shots.
DeAndre Mathieu needs Dre Hollins back more than any other player on the court. Mathieu is the fastest player on the court every time he steps on the court, but without Minnesota's best scorer one pass away defenses can afford to collapse into the lane to prevent his drives. He will continue to make special plays (see his pretty pass to Hollins for a dunk in the second half), but is prone to trying to do too much and playing out of control.
Daquein McNeil saw additional playing time and has established himself as the back up point guard in Dre Hollins absence. Pitino clearly has trust in his recruit.
About the last play of the game. I want to be clear that I'm about to make a general point about referees. Referees affect the game by what they don't call. Swallowing the whistle in the last minute of a game is a hugely problematic practice and Pitino was right to complain that a foul should have been called. Dre Mathieu was bodied on the drive in the air. That's a foul in the first minute of the game and it's a foul at the end of the game. However, one of those layups need to fall. Walker was in position on the rebound to make an easy layup and missed it. The Gophers should never need a buzzer beater to beat Northwestern at home. Period.
The Gophers next play at Purdue on February 5th.
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